Preview: The Great Book of John Sing Under Dark Stars

great book of john - cary norton

I remember downloading “A Traveler’s Dream” from the Great Book of John’s Myspace (pre-JT) account in 2007. It was a simple guitar and vocal demo, but it was nonetheless gripping and haunting. I pressed repeat numerous times once I put it on my iPod. I attended my first ever CD release show at Bottletree in 2008 for GBOJ’s Yves’ Blues and that album found its way into my Camry stereo on and off for the next three years, especially “Death of A Middle-School Guidance Counselor” and “James”.

Flash forward to September 2011 and I have picked up my first local vinyl from Renaissance Records, The Great Book of John. The clear record itself was fascinating, but what was engrained inside was spectacular. A much more electrically charged record with elements of the familiar on “Wiseblood” and “Ashes Over Manhattan,” while introducing darker tones through “Robin Hood” and “Simple Things”.

The band’s upcoming album was recorded in Manhattan over a 14-hour period by Paul Logis, though only the single “Dark Star” has been released. The 10-song record should be spectacular.

I spoke with lead singer Taylor Shaw about the album, his introspections on art and music and recording in New York.

Chris K. Davidson for You Hear This?: Tell me about the sonic evolution of the band from Yves’ Blues to this latest album.

Taylor Shaw: We did Yves’ Blues, then we did the self-titled album. Like I’ve said before, Yves’ Blues is almost like a skeleton and the self-titled album was like the meat, a lot more produced for sure. I wanted to make a pop album and record it in that style, where you lay down the track and build everything from that. We still did some stuff where we cut live things, but we got to go back and add. Unless we have tons of money, we can’t go back and recreate all of the different instruments or we don’t have the money to pay someone to go on tour just to play one or two songs.

The new album, in a way, is almost like Yves’ Blues  than The Great Book of John, in that we recorded it live all in one night in the same way that we did Yves’ Blues. We recorded ten songs the first day and the second day was mostly them mixing stuff. I went and recut a couple of vocals that I wasn’t happy with, but we wanted to keep that live vibe and feel. We had already done that to a point with Yves’ Blues. In comparison to the new album, Yves’ Blues is also just a three-piece and this one is as well with me playing guitar, Chip [Kilpatrick] on drums and Alex [Mitchell] on bass. It’s almost like a power trio. It’s really nice, too, because we got my friend Noel Johnson to come in and play some keys, mainly to have the chords padded underneath, so that you have this sense of a chord to give me more freedom on guitar. I don’t have to drive everything necessarily and it fills in the empty spaces. It’s a very subtle thing. It felt like we were a band. We were a lot closer.

The songs were still real new. I had just shown a lot of them to Chip because he had been coming back and forth from Spain. Alex had heard some of them. They were very new to the guys. There is a new certain energy when you have a new song. It kind of fades over time. You’re enamored by it, but that fades over time. There’s a certain vibrant energy there when it’s new, but also a small uncertainty because you’re afraid of messing up or not sure what’s next. I think that keeps it on your toes. Like I said, it’s like Yves’ Blues if you gave Chip a few more drums and let me play electric. There was a bit of piano on Yves’, but this album has full organ and a lot of piano. It serves as a pad that give you a reference point. If I’m playing a solo, it gives Alex more freedom to not frame the chords in a traditional way. We used the organ to double the melody that I’m playing on guitar, just to strengthen the song subliminally. It makes a little less understated and concrete.

We went back to our roots, but I feel like we’ve grown a lot as a band, and you can definitely hear that on this album. We’re all on the same page and doing the same thing. After the self-titled, we almost went back to our roots, but we kept progressing as far as our sound goes. That’s something important to me. Everything is always changing, and you’re trying to make something new. It’s a restrictive hand choking you to death if you don’t move forward. You have to be willing to change. Somebody said that Stevie Ray Vaughn didn’t just play music; he played the way he felt. Similar with Buddy Guy. If he was sad, he’d play sad. If he was hyper, he’d play hyper. That’s something I’ve grasped on to and to be very honest on how I am forming and playing and singing. If I’m heartbroken about something, I’m not going to say. If I’m heartbroken, I’d rather play with everything I’ve got. If I’m on top of the world, I don’t want to be fake and have a facade on stage, but just be the truest form of myself that I can possibly be.

With any art, I feel with even the most fantastical senses, I still feel like they are still true, even if it’s from the author and it’s just the emotion you’re getting from it. I feel like even if you don’t get it, you’re seeing the author in their truest self and in that moment, even if it’s not pretty. That means a whole lot to me when it comes to music and art in general. That’s the unifying theme of everything.  If it’s Yves’ Blues or the self-titled or the new album, it’s still all about being your true self as much as you can without covering things up or hiding. It’s the truth to be vulnerable like that. You have to open up.

YHT?: Tell me about recording in New York.

TS: That was an awesome experience. We were on 48th Street in Manhattan, right by Times Square. They had this little balcony, so it was really cool to walk out in between takes. It was quiet in the studio unless we were playing a song. It was a more subdued vibe, but when you walk out, you hear all of these horns and people walking around. It’s loud, but there’s so much going on. It’s a nice energy to feed off on. There’s so much to see in New York. Your mind can’t help but wander because there’s so much to absorb and see. It’s such a spectacle. That was awesome. I’m not a huge New York guy, but there ten thousand stories walking past you, and you can’t help but let that seep into what you are doing.

The Great Book of John recently was named “Best Birmingham Band” in al.com’s annual poll. Come celebrate and congratulate them on Thursday, September 5th, at Iron City as they play with New Madrid and Dirty Lungs. All three bands played at this years Secret Stages. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $9. 

About Chris K. Davidson

Chris K. Davidson is a contributing writer for You Hear This. He has written for Birmingham Box Set, AL.com, among others.

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